Toyota has a long reputation for building vehicles with off-road prowess, but it’s been a long time since its lineup has included a compact SUV with rock-crawling abilities.

But now the Japanese automaker better known for fuel-efficient family vehicles wants to revisit that chapter of its history and explore the idea of a new small SUV based on the RAV4.

The original 4Runner of the 1980s was a compact based on the company’s little pickup truck, but has since grown into a mid-sized model, along with a mid-range pickup now known as Tacoma. In recent years, Toyota’s only other nod to off-road enthusiasts was the FJ Cruiser, a stylish SUV that disappeared after the 2015 model year.

But the Toyota’s Chicago auto show display this month included a new RAV4 Trail trim level, a version of the popular small crossover lightly modified with a lifted suspension and more rugged styling. Under the hood, RAV4’s 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine and six-speed transmission are unchanged, but there’s a bigger radiator and engine oil and transmission fluid coolers to help the little utility keep its cool in tough going.

In an interview at the Chicago show, Toyota USA general manager Bill Fay told Automotive News the company is using the RAV4 Trail to test the marketplace for a potential future expansion of the RAV4 family with an off-road-ready model that shares more in common with the 4Runner than the Camry.

We think a full-on RAV4-based rock-crawler is unlikely, but it’s entirely possible Toyota could create a variant something along the lines of the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.

The Cherokee toes the line between crossover and SUV with a car-based platform and the Trailhawk trim level, which adds all-terrain tires, more sophisticated traction control system, underbody skid plates and low-range gearing with a locking rear axle. It also comes with heavier-duty engine and transmission cooling like Toyota has added to the latest RAV4 trim.

It would hardly be a challenger for Toyota to adapt the off-road hardware and technology in the 4Runner (not to mention the Tundra and Tacoma picksup) to the RAV4, so that turning it into a credible off-roader would be a cinch.

Greg Bernas, chief engineer in Toyota’s Technical Centre, said the conversion would require a lot of thought about just how capable a more rough-and-ready RAV4 should be, but that the company is ready to do that work if consumers are interested.

(via Automotive News)